Yesterday I saw the new movie The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney and such other worthies as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham). It is a wonderful movie that I think everyone should see. It is based on Robert Edsel's even more wonderful 2009 book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which tells the story of Allied effort in final year of World War II to salvage and recover Europe's historical and artistic treasures that had been looted by the Nazis and were in danger of being destroyed or irreparably lost.
I've always been interested in the history of World War II (especially the European Theater where my father and several uncles fought). After all, when I was growing up the war was still recent history, and its impact overshadowed everything. By the time I first read Edsel's book in 2009, all that had long changed, of course. Still, the story fascinated me. Perhaps it seemed especially salient to me then, since one of the major art treasures in the story is the "Bruges Madonna," one of the very few extant copies of which is housed in our own Paulist "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York. At that time, I was Associate pastor there and often gave tours of the Church. Those tours were primarily religious and historical but they, of course, also highlighted the church's artistic treasures, which are part of the precious patrimony of the church and of which the bronze copy of the Bruges Madonna (photo) is certainly one of the most notable.
The original in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Bruges, Belgium, is a marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, and it is the only known Michelangelo sculpture outside Italy. Except when stolen, it has been in that church since 1514. It was first stolen by the French in 1794, after the French Republic conquered the Austrian Netherlands. It was stolen a second time 150 years later in 1944, wrapped in mattresses and taken by the retreating Germans. Its subsequent recovery in Altausee, Austria, is a major episode in the book and (along with the search for the Ghent altarpeice) serves as a major leitmotif for the movie.
World War II has often been seen (then and since) as a war to save European civilization. As the movie tries to argue, destroying a civilizations's cultural achievements is effectively to destroy that civilization itself. Conversely, saving its achievements is a critical component of saving a civilization. That is why the work of the "Monuments Men" was so important and is so deserving of belated recognition. That so many of the artifacts of our civilization find their homes in churches further highlights the inescapably Christian character of European civilization. That is a reality contemporary society, which seems increasingly so out of touch with its past, seems increasingly inclined to forget - to its loss and its peril.